Crossers burying garbage in Arizona border 5-31-07

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - After three years of cleanups, the federal government has achieved no better than a 1 percent solution for the problem of trash left in Southern Arizona by illegal border-crossers.

Cleanup crews from various agencies, volunteer groups and the Tohono O'odham Nation hauled about 250,000 pounds of trash from thousands of acres of federal, state and private land across Southern Arizona in 2002 to 2005, says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

But that's only a fraction of the nearly 25 million pounds of trash thought to be out there.

Authorities estimate the 3.2 million-plus entrants caught by the Border Patrol dropped that much garbage in the Southern Arizona desert from July 1999 through June 2005. The figure assumes that each illegal entrant discards 8 pounds of trash, the weight of some abandoned backpacks found in the desert.

The trash is piling up faster than it can be cleaned up. Considering that the Border Patrol apprehended more than 577,000 entrants in 2004-05 alone, the BLM figures that those people left almost 4 million pounds of trash in that same year.

That's 16 times what was picked up in three years. And that doesn't include the unknown amounts of garbage left by border-crossers who don't get caught.

“We're keeping up with the trash only in certain locations, in areas that we've hit as many as three times,” said Shela McFarlin, BLM's special assistant for international programs.

The trash includes water bottles, sweaters, jeans, razors, soap, medications, food, ropes, batteries, cell phones, radios, homemade weapons and human waste.

It has been found in large quantities as high as Miller Peak, towering more than 9,400 feet in the Huachuca Mountains, as well as in low desert such as Organ Pipe National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

“In the Huachucas, you are almost wading through empty gallon water jugs,” said Steve Singkofer, the Hiking Club's president. “There's literally thousands of water jugs, clothes, shoes. You could send 1,000 people out there and they could each pick up a dozen water jugs, and they couldn't get it all.”

While nobody has an exact cost estimate for removing all the garbage, it's clearly not cheap. But McFarlin agrees with several advocacy groups that without a tightening of controls on illegal immigration, a guest-worker program or other reform of federal border policy, the trash will just keep coming regardless of what's spent.

In 2002, the U.S. estimated that removing all litter from lands just in southeast Arizona - east of the Tohono Reservation - would cost about $4.5 million over five years. This count didn't include such trash hotbeds as Ironwood Forest National Monument, the Altar Valley, Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta.

Since then, Congress appropriated about $3.4 million for a wide range of environmental remediation measures in all of southern Arizona. This includes repairing roads, building fences and removing abandoned cars.

The five-year tab is $62.9 million for all forms of environmental remediating for immigration-related damage across Southeast Arizona, including $23 million for the first year.

Most of the garbage is left at areas where entrants wait to be picked up by smugglers. The accumulation of disintegrating toilet paper, human feces and rotting food is a health and safety issue for residents of these areas and visitors to public lands, a new BLM report says.

“It's particularly serious in areas where there are livestock,” said Robin Hoover, pastor of the First Christian Church in Tucson and president of Humane Borders, a group that puts water tanks in the desert for the entrants and coordinates monthly cleanups of Ironwood Monument and other sites.

“I've even found injectable drugs in the desert,” he said. “It's rare when we find that kind of stuff, but there's tons of over-the-counter medication out there. If some cow comes along and eats a bunch of pills, that would be a real sick cow.”

The trash also isn't good for wildlife, said Arizona Game and Fish spokesman Dana Yost. Birds and mammals can get tangled up in it or eat it, causing digestive problems, Yost said.

But clear inroads are being made into the trash problem, said BLM's McFarlin. Using the U.S. money, various local and federal agencies, the Tohono O'odham Tribe, the conservationist Malpais Borderlands Group and student youth corps remove trash from the most obvious and accessible areas, she said.

What needs tackling now are more remote areas such as wilderness, mountains and deserts far from major roads, she said. A couple of times, authorities have had to use helicopters or mules to haul stuff out of such areas.

This summer, with Border Patrol apprehensions of entrants down, the Tohono O'odham Tribe is seeing less trash on the ground than usual, said Gary Olson, the tribe's solid-waste administrator.

“I don't know whether they're hiding their trash or whether they are just not coming,” Olson said.

But only seven weeks ago, No More Deaths, an advocacy group that looks for injured, sick and lost entrants, came across a 10,000-square-foot area five miles west of Arivaca littered with hundreds and hundreds of backpacks.

“I've never seen anything that size. It's unbelievable,” said Steve Johnston, who coordinates the group's camp near Arivaca.

Other activists from Derechos Humanos, Defenders of Wildlife and No More Deaths say the trash piles show what happens when the feds deliberately drive the entrants into the desert, by sealing the borders in cities.

“If you were going to cities, you wouldn't need to carry three days' worth of food,” said Kat Rodriguez, a coordinator-organizer for Derechos.

But a Cochise County activist who has been photographing garbage and other signs of damage from illegal immigration for five years said she is appalled the federal government is spending tax dollars to pick this garbage up.

Illegal entrants should pick up the trash themselves, said Cindy Kolb, who helped found the group Civil Homeland Defense.

“Our mothers did not pay someone to pick up our trash,” Kolb said. “We were taught to pick it up ourselves and to practice civic pride as law-abiding citizens.”